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Preparing for the Next Megaquake

When my editor at Sasquatch Books pitched Full Rip 9.0: The Next Big Earthquake in the Pacific Northwest to higher-ups in the publishing world, they weren't enthusiastic.

"Is there anything positive in it?" they asked with dismay.

It's a good question. Who wants to read a depressing litany of the ways in which we are doomed?

As I see it, though, the story is a hopeful one.

Knowledge is power, and thanks to the work of a generation of geologists, we finally know our region's true seismic nature.Knowledge is power, and thanks to the work of a generation of geologists, we finally know our region's true seismic nature.

Less than 30 years ago, no one could have imagined that Oregon, Washington, Northern California, and British Columbia face the same type of monster quake and tsunami that slammed Japan in 2011. Today, governments, businesses, schools, and utilities are making upgrades and mapping out what still needs to be done to ensure that the region will be able to bounce back from a catastrophe that is inevitable.

"We cannot avoid the future earthquake, but we can choose either a future in which the earthquake results in grim damage and losses and a society diminished for a generation, or a future in which the earthquake is a manageable disaster without lasting impact," says Oregon's official Resilience Plan, issued this year.

Pulled together by more than 100 experts who donated their time, the plan is written in a straightforward style with little of the jargon and equivocation that makes most bureaucratic reports impenetrable to the layperson. It's not the kind of document you'll want to curl up with at night, but it's worth skimming. Much of its contents are indeed grim.

It's hard to imagine living without electricity and Internet access for even a week. The report warns that after a magnitude 9.0 megaquake, it could take one to three months to fully restore power in western Oregon cities like Portland, Salem, and Eugene. Sewer and water systems could be down for a month to a year — a long time to be queuing up at water trucks and porta-potties. Repairing the region's main highways just enough to make them passable would require six months to a year; bringing the transportation system back to normal would be a multiyear job.

In Oregon alone, the quake and tsunami are expected to kill at least a thousand people and perhaps many times that number if it strikes on a sunny day when the beaches are packed. With similar destruction stretching from the tip of Vancouver Island to Cape Mendocino, the entire country will stagger under the impact. Damage estimates for Washington and Oregon are close to $80 billion.

But instead of throwing up our collective hands, the region is beginning to take incremental steps to lessen the toll of the coming quake. Oregon's resilience plan, and a similar one issued this year for Washington, lay out 50-year blueprints for upgrading infrastructure, utilities, and critical facilities like hospitals and police and fire stations. What we need now is money, political will, public pressure, and enough breathing room from Mother Nature to get the work done.

It's a remarkable turnaround for a part of the country that was long considered to be seismologically sleepy. The occasional quakes that did strike were unsettling, to be sure. But they were nothing like the ones Californians had to deal with on a regular basis. "Los Angeles may shimmy with earthquakes and San Francisco may get another one," geology professor Collier Cobb declared in the 1920s, "but Seattle, set on the deepest glacial drift yet discovered, has a shock absorber which makes the city immune for all time." Oregon was considered even less earthquake-prone than its neighbor to the north.

Tracking the way that thinking changed over time led me to an unexpected starting point: the grand vision for a nuclear Northwest that originated with a utility consortium called the Washington Public Power Supply System. By the late 1970s, WPPSS and other utilities in Oregon and Washington were building or planning nearly a dozen atomic power plants.

Those plans downplayed the risk of earthquakes. In the early 1980s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission enlisted a young U.S. Geological Survey scientist to vet the claims WPPSS was making about the seismic hazard near the Washington coast, where the twin Satsop reactors were already under construction. WPPSS's consultants argued that a giant, offshore fault called the Cascadia Subduction Zone was nothing to worry about.

Most geologists at the time agreed. The 600-mile-long fault marks the boundary where the seafloor collides with North America. Elsewhere in the world, tectonic plate boundaries of this type have spawned massive quakes and tsunamis — including the world-record magnitude 9.5 quake that devastated Chile in 1960. But the Cascadia Subduction Zone was so quiet that it seemed harmless.

The USGS scientist was among the first to question that assumption. His 1984 report warned there was no reason to think the Cascadia Subduction Zone wasn't capable of unleashing a killer quake and tsunami of its own.

It was a few years later when another USGS scientist discovered evidence in coastal marshes that the ground had dropped abruptly in the past, as would be expected during a subduction zone megaquake. The buried layers of peat he uncovered each marked a giant quake, while thick layers of sand revealed the paths of ancient tsunamis.

Since that initial discovery, the pace of research and revelation in the Pacific Northwest has been breathtaking. The region has been probed and wired and modeled and scrutinized. The latest evidence suggests that the Cascadia Subduction Zone has unleashed a giant quake and tsunami of magnitude 8 to 9.3 — every 250 to 300 years on average.The latest evidence suggests that the Cascadia Subduction Zone has unleashed a giant quake and tsunami — of magnitude 8 to 9.3 — every 250 to 300 years on average.

With the last full-rip 9 dating to 1700, it's possible to argue that we are somehow "overdue." But earthquakes don't follow a clockwork schedule. Some of the ancient megaquakes were separated by less than a century. Others were followed by nearly 900 years of quiet.

What science has given us is the knowledge of what will happen. It can't tell us when it will happen.

There's no doubt the region will be rocked by another megaquake and tsunami. By couching the consequences in terms every resident and business owner can understand, Oregon's and Washington's resilience plans are helping the region wake up to that reality. No one wants to go for months without sewer service or gasoline or cell-phone reception.

Advice and tips for individual preparedness are easy to find and important to follow. But it's the potential damage to roads, bridges, utilities, fuel pipelines, water-treatment plants, and electrical transmission lines that threatens the region's future.

Oregon is making a good start with its preparations. Champions in the state legislature helped secure funding several years ago to survey every school building in the state — something Washington hasn't done yet. Out of nearly 2,200 structures, the survey found almost half are at high or very high danger of collapse.

Knowing that your child's school is likely to crumble is a powerful motivator to get involved. An advocacy group, Oregon Parents for Quake-Resistant Schools, is applying political heat and pushing for the money it will take to fix those dangerous classrooms.

But who's advocating to require retrofits of old brick buildings, perhaps the most dangerous places to be in an earthquake? That's a problem California tackled and solved years ago. And what about old concrete buildings? These structures, which are prone to pancaking, can be even more deadly than brick buildings because they're usually bigger. But try to find out if the building where you work or live falls into a suspect category, and you're likely to hit a wall. Unless you know how to read engineering diagrams, it can be almost impossible to figure out if a privately owned building is sound or a seismic death trap.

That's scary — particularly in Oregon, where the first seismic building codes weren't adopted until 1974. It wasn't until 1993 that codes in the state were modified to take coastal megaquakes into account. Even today, most builders do only the minimum. As long as a building doesn't collapse and kill people, it meets the standard — even if it's so damaged it has to be demolished after the quake.

That's why I'm impressed with a gutsy proposal in Oregon's resilience plan that calls for a seismic rating system for new buildings.

Builders aren't likely to be keen on the idea. But what about you?

Is it going to take a disaster to rally public support for seismic safety in the Pacific Northwest?

Note: Sandi Doughton, along with an expert panel, will be appearing at Powell's City of Books on Friday, June 21, at 7:30 p.m.

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Sandi Doughton received her undergraduate degree — majors in biology and journalism, minor in chemistry — from the University of New Mexico and did graduate studies in biology and chemistry at Texas A&M University. Her first science writing job was for the Los Alamos Monitor, a small daily where she covered the Los Alamos National Laboratory and its programs in nuclear weapons, Star Wars anti-ballistic missile systems, laser fusion, and basic physics. She currently writes about science for the Seattle Times. Full-Rip 9.0: The Next Big Earthquake in the Pacific Northwest is her first book.

Books mentioned in this post

Sandi Doughton is the author of Full-Rip 9.0: The Next Big Earthquake in the Pacific Northwest

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